OMAHA — The College World Series is held here every June, smack in the middle of the summer’s most turbulent weather: broiling heat combined with roiling thunderstorms that can hold up play for hours.
Oregon State, this year’s eventual champion, caught a break the day before the Series opened, drawing 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. session for batting practice at TD Ameritrade Park, before the worst of the 90-degree heat settled in.
Near the end of the session, Trevor Larnach, the tall left-handed batter drafted by the Twins in the first round, stepped in for his final turn. The prevailing wind blew into the ballpark, snapping the flags in center field, and Larnach had no interest seeing how far he could jack the ball. Standing off the plate with his left foot on the back line of the batter’s box, Larnach extended his arms and hit every ball where it was pitched, from left field across to right center. None left the park.
“I’m not necessarily trying to hit home runs,” Larnach said in the Beavers clubhouse afterward. “Maybe the last couple rounds or so, I’ll get one, maybe. I mostly try to go gap to gap, and make sure to pay attention to ball flight. You can hit balls in various ways, with topspin, knuckleball, and backspin.” The latter, he said, “is what I want and what I look for.”
Larnach is one of the more analytical hitters to come through the Beavers program. The Twins drafted him days before Oregon State eliminated Minnesota in an NCAA Super Regional to qualify for the series, and his performance here justified the pick. Larnach batted .417 (15-for-36) with one homer and nine runs batted in; only teammate Adley Rutschman had more hits (17) and RBI (13). The Twins announced they had signed the 6-foot-4 Larnach, a junior right fielder who led the Beavers with 19 home runs, on Thursday.
Here’s the thing, though: Why are the Twins expending top picks on hitters when they so badly need pitching?
Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey is supposed to be a pitching guy, yet the Twins chose hitters with the first two picks of both drafts he’s supervised. Last year the Twins selected shortstop Royce Lewis with the No. 1 overall pick and outfielder Brent Rooker later in the first round before taking pitcher Landon Leach in the second round. This year the Twins took Larnach and catcher Ryan Jeffers in the first two rounds, then waited until the fifth round to choose their first pitcher, Florida State’s Cole Sands, at No. 154 overall. (The Twins lost their third-round pick by signing Lance Lynn as a free agent.)
Here’s the deal: More and more organizations understand that drafting a pitcher is like buying a used car, because you can never be sure what you’re getting. Too many youth, high school and college coaches overuse their best arms. No matter how diligent the scouting, it’s difficult to determine whose arm is supple, sound and well-cared for, and whose is 20 innings away from Tommy John surgery.
The Twins, according to scouting director Sean Johnson, hesitate to risk seven-figure bonus money on a highly-hyped high school or college pitcher who may break down within two years. In studying prior drafts, Johnson said roughly as many pitchers chosen with the 31st through 60th overall picks — that’s late first round through deep into the second — reach the majors as those taken 1st to 30th. “Especially high school pitchers,” he said. So in the first round at least, they lean toward position players as a safer bet. That guy may not pan out either, but he’s less likely to be derailed by major elbow or shoulder surgery, wasting millions in bonus money. And since the Twins are known traditionally as a hitting organization, Johnson said it makes sense to draft to that strength.
There’s some merit to this strategy. Of the ten pitchers who began this week with baseball’s lowest earned run averages, five were among the first 19 picks in the draft. But three others — Jon Lester, Jacob deGrom and Ross Stripling — went in the second round or later, and Luis Severino signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic.
Eventually, though, the Twins need to develop more pitching than they traditionally have. Acquiring pitching is expensive, and the used car axiom applies here as well. This season Twins spent $41.7 million on five veterans — Lynn, Addison Reed, Jake Odorizzi, Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke — with mixed results. Developing your own keeps payroll manageable and makes you less tempted to overpay over the winter or at the trade deadline. So more Jose Berrios, Fernando Romero and Trevor Hildenberger — a late first-rounder, an undrafted free agent and a 22nd-rounder, respectively.
Which brings us back to Larnach.
A 40th round choice out of high school by San Diego, Larnach batted .157 in limited play as an Oregon State freshman. Then he started working with a private hitting instructor. That’s common practice these days, and there are tons of them in Southern California, where Larnach grew up, and in Oregon. Larnach declined to identify the instructor, who used video to help Larnach understand his swing and how to tinker with it.
“I never had a hitting coach in high school,” Larnach said. “The only time I started to work on it and change my swing was when I started struggling at Oregon State. I was able to work with somebody and not only get an understanding of the swing, but take bits and pieces out of my own swing mechanically and put new parts in. That helps add the power to all fields.”
Larnach aims to hit everything to left-center field. After hitting only three homers as a sophomore in his first full season as a starter, this season he homered four times in his first eight games. He finished with 19, along with 77 RBI and a .348 average in 68 games. Though he struck out more than any other Beaver — 66 times in 256 at-bats — his 50 walks tied him for the team lead.
With Larnach batting fourth or fifth, Oregon State was an offensive powerhouse. Three position players — Larnach, second baseman Nick Madrigal and shortstop Cadyn Grenier — were first-round picks, and two others were drafted in the first ten rounds. The Beavers hit eight home runs at the College World Series (the other seven teams combined for ten), batted .327 and scored 59 runs, almost twice as many runs as anyone else.
Minnesota’s Jerry Kindall is the only player to hit for the cycle at the series, and that was in in 1956. Larnach almost did it in Oregon State’s first game, against North Carolina, missing just the home run. He tripled off the center-field wall (a stout shot with the wind again gusting in); doubled to left; and laced a single down the third-base line when the Tar Heels over-shifted the infield to the right.
His lone CWS homer could not have been more dramatic —a two-run, ninth-inning, game-deciding blast against Arkansas in Game 2 of the best-of-3 championship series. The Beavers lost Game 1, trailed 3-2 in Game 2 and were one out from elimination when the Razorbacks failed to catch a foul pop behind first base. Grenier then singled to tie the game before Larnach, who rarely pulls the ball, lined a Matt Cronin fastball into the bullpen in right for a 5-3 lead that held up. Oregon State wrapped up the title the next night, 5-0.
“I think there are two types of hitters,” Beavers Coach Pat Casey said, “There’s one that likes (video analysis), and there’s one that says I love to go hit, and doesn’t spend as much time with that. Maybe when they get to professional baseball, have more technology and more time, more of those things available to them, they get into it.
“But Trev likes that stuff, and he likes to talk about it. And I think it helps him relax. It’s built some confidence in him that somewhere along the line, if he’s not swinging the bat the way he wants, he can look at it and figure out what he’s doing. That’s pretty good peace of mind.”